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Two for the show

20-year-olds light up the stage in 'Ragtime' and 'Caroline'

As soon as Stephanie Umoh and Shavanna Calder walk into the Roberts Studio Theatre, they hit it off. They chat animatedly about mutual friends, their Calvin Klein jeans, and where they get their hair done -- the recent damp weather has been positively wrecking it. Calder tells Umoh she gets hers roller set at a Dominican place for $20. Umoh screams with delight: She says she's paying $100 on Newbury Street.

But much more than that binds them. At 20, the actresses are both college sophomores and relatively inexperienced theatrically. But they also have great voices and acting talent. And they've landed plum roles in two of the best shows in town.

Umoh has earned raves as Sarah, a young mother caught up in early-20th-century racial strife in the musical ``Ragtime," which closes Sunday at the New Repertory Theatre. Calder has won acclaim as Emmie , the daughter of Caroline, a '60s Southern maid, in the SpeakEasy Stage Company musical ``Caroline, or Change," which runs at the Calderwood Pavilion through June 10.

Umoh majors in musical theater at the Boston Conservatory, Calder in cinema and media studies at Wellesley College. For both, juggling rehearsals, school, and performing is difficult. But these two, brimming with a mix of charm, humility, and drive, are managing to pull it all off.

As they settle in at the dining room table on the ``Caroline" set, they share how initially intimidating it was to work with some of Boston's top actors.

``Jacqui Parker [who plays Caroline], her callback was before mine," says Calder. ``I heard her sing. And then she came out, and she was like, `Whooo. I've just been feeling so sick.' And I was like, are you serious? Because she sounded amazing. But it's been great working with her; she has so much knowledge. She's not a diva in any way."

Neither, says Umoh, is Leigh Barrett , whose character takes Sarah and her out-of-wedlock baby into her home. Barrett ``is absolutely amazing," says Umoh. ``It's like she's taken me under her wing. I was so intimidated by everyone -- I'm just a student! She's taught me a lot."

When asked how it feels to play such a huge role, with several show stopping numbers, in this musical by Stephen Flaherty, Lynn Ahrens, and Terrence McNally, Umoh laughs, then exhales.

``I guess it's almost unreal to me that I even have this role. But I feel very fortunate," she says. ``I've learned so much and have so much to take back to school, and I've been able to apply a lot of the things I've learned in school to this character."

``Ragtime" director Rick Lombardo, producing artistic director of the New Rep , says he held extensive auditions for the role of Sarah, a challenging part that was written for the enormous range of Audra McDonald, who was in the original Broadway cast.

Umoh, who had come in to audition for the ensemble, chose to sing Sarah's signature song, ``Your Daddy's Son."

``She was the first to sing across the entire vocal range, full voice, with incredible power," Lombardo says. ``I was literally dumbstruck that a woman that young could do that, after hearing 30 more experienced singers."

Still, Lombardo was concerned about her inexperience. At one callback, he asked her to sing ``Your Daddy's Son" again, this time a cappella.

``She did it again, brilliantly," he says. ``This happens so rarely, you feel like you're discovering an amazing young talent."

``Caroline" director Paul Daigneault , artistic director of SpeakEasy, says of Calder's audition for the Tony Kushner/Jeanine Tesori musical: ``I really loved her. She was sort of unknown, but she has this deep richness to her voice that makes me think that Caroline is in her, which is part of the point: that Caroline is in her. When I heard her sing I knew it was the right way to go."

Playing it nice, Daigneault explained to her later, was not what he wanted from Emmie, whose social awareness and assertiveness grow during the course of the show. ``You want to know that she's been brought up by this strong-minded woman, that Caroline is inadvertently changing the world by the way she's raising her kids," Daigneault says. ``Shavanna had all that."

Calder, who started acting at age 5, was raised in Vacaville, Calif., by parents who came from Guyana. Umoh grew up in Texas with a Nigerian father and a white mother. Both say they haven't experienced the kind of overt racial discrimination encountered by the characters they play. It's out there, though, says Calder.

``When you turn on the TV or you watch films, you see a lot of stereotypical black portrayals," she says. ``So to be able to come here and do this role that has so much depth, compared to what I see on a regular basis, has just been really gratifying."

Both have their sights set on performing careers in New York or elsewhere. But for now, they are trying to get through finals and projects at the same time they are performing.

Calder says at one point she ``ran around backstage during intermission" interviewing people for a final video project. After the show that night, she spent five hours editing the video.

As for Umoh, ``During intermission, or if I didn't have to be onstage, I was memorizing a monologue or reviewing text or memorizing a song for class or writing a paper," she says. ``Opening night, I had a final in the morning." She laughs, disbelievingly.

Until her junior year of high school, Umoh thought she'd be going to college for biology. Then she got into her first play.

``I liked it!" she says. ``My father was always, `Stay on the books, stay on the books.' And then I'm getting involved even more and more. It became like my heart, my joy , and my passion."

Catherine Foster can be reached at

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